John Gower: Poems on Contemporary Events.
In the Visio Anglie and the Cronica tripertita, Gower writes in Latin about two of the most serious political events of his lifetime, the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 and the deposition of Richard II in 1399. Although the two poems have been previously made available in scholarly editions of Gower's works, this most recent version by David Carlson, with a verse translation by A. G. Rigg, is welcome for several reasons. By going back to the manuscripts, it offers a newly established text along with an accessible and accurate translation accompanied by critical commentary; by excerpting the two poems (usually transmitted as part of Gower's Vox clamantis), it highlights Gower's famously tare reactions to contemporary events; and by publishing the two together, it invites comparison of Gower's poetic treatments of political events separated by some twenty years and thus of his changing stylistic strategies and ideological allegiances.
It makes a certain sense to publish these poems as stand-alone works, given that both the Visio Anglie and the Cronica tripertita are evidently later additions to the Vox clamantis, as Carlson and Rigg explain, which made their way into that text as part of Gower's process of reworking and expanding his oeuvre in the years after 1393, by which point all three of his major works had been written. The most obviously added of the two is the Cronica, which was probably written in early 1400, some twenty years after the rest of the Vox. The Cronica clearly circulated separately, even though it survives as a coda in four of five existing manuscripts of the Vox to which it is connected by means of prose explanations that describe it as the work's natural conclusion. The Visio appears also to have been an addendum to the Vox, although a less well-integrated one, transmitted as its first book.
The editing and translating work is fresh, accurate, and useful in making the poems accessible. Since there is no existing stand-alone version of the Visio, Carlson and Rigg use Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby 138, one of the earliest copies of the Vox as their base text; Oxford, Bodleian Library, Hatton 92, which contains a copy of the Cronica by itself, is their base text for that poem. In both cases, readings from other relevant manuscripts are helpfully included. The verse translations wisely aim to render Gower's Latin into readable English, rather than to reproduce his style, although the meters of the translations depend on those in Gower's originals. The Visio is in unrhymed elegiac couplets, which Rigg renders as unrhymed iambic pentameters. The Cronica is in rhymed hexameters, using the variant known as Leonines, which have a disyllabic rhyme between the caesura and the end of the line; the English translates this into a longer Alexandrine line of twelve-syllabled iambics, with end-rhymes in couplets, thus capturing the general feel of Gower's verse. The result is an elegant, yet readable, set of texts that can be profitably used by those who can read the original Latin and those who cannot.
While appreciating the scholarship behind this edition, many readers will no doubt be most interested in what these two poems say about the events of 1381 and 1399. The pressure of current affairs seems to have been what drove Gower to write these two ancillary poems, "diverting him from his moralizing on the state of the society around him in the direction of something else, effectively more satiric," as the introduction puts it (8). In both cases, Gower wrote something unusual for him, verse commentaries on contemporary history employing an eyewitness perspective. While it does not add a great deal of new information about the events of 1381, the Visio is useful for its recording of Gower's reactions to what happened on those turbulent midsummer days. It hints at Gower's pro-Lancastrian biases, seen in his horror at the destruction of the Savoy, palace of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, and makes obvious his antipathy for the rebels, who are described as domesticated animals turned monstrously wild and led in their attack by a jay. "Semper ad interitum nam rusticus insidiatur" [The peasants always plot towards our death] (line 2099), Gower says in summation near the poem's end. If its lack of sympathy for the rebels is now hard to take, its emotionally charged evocation of the frightening nature of the rising (with the three-day assault on London compared to the fall of Troy and the narrator's fearful wandering likened to that of an exile) makes the Visio a compelling barometer of the response of most elites. The Cronica is similarly pro-Lancastrian, roundly blaming Richard II for his own downfall. "Rex induratum cor semper habet" [King Richard's heart was ever hard] (line 13), Gower writes near the poem's opening, recasting what other commentators took as a signally successful moment in Richard's career--his successful negotiation with the rebels of 1381--as a sign of early rot that would end in his tyrannous treatment of his cousin: "R. regnum vastat vindex et in omnibus astat" [R. despoiled and raped the realm, vengeful, always vicious] (line 472). In contrast, Bolingbroke is presented as without flaw--described as "probus Henricus pietatis semper amicus" [Henry, stalwart, true, and always merciful] (line 452)--who by seizing the throne ushered in order and good governance.
For those drawn more towards Gower's poetic achievements than his social vision, these two poems offer an illuminating set of contrasting stylistic approaches, a point stressed by Carlson and Rigg. "Highly inventive" in genre and structure, the Visio, which is a unique example in Latin of the dream-vision form so popular in vernacular literature of the period, is also "highly derivative" on a verbal level, with nearly one in five of its lines quoting other poets modern and ancient, especially Ovid (10). In contrast, the Cronica derives from a single source whose organization it follows closely, but is verbally entirely original. The extensive commentary provided in the endnotes backs up these claims about the opposing styles of the two poems and is particularly good at charting Gower's borrowings from his various sources and in pointing out both his reworking of sources and his original contributions.
Whether attracted by the historical or the literary side of these two poems, readers will find in this edition an impeccable work of scholarship, marked by careful editing, thorough research, and skillful translating. This edition should encourage wider appreciation of these two distinctive poems and spur increased inquiry into Gower's engagement with contemporary events.
University of Iowa